The wait continues.
The Eastport South Manor football team was primed for its first postseason victory on Friday night. The Sharks came into the Suffolk County Division III playoffs as the third seed after a program-best 7-1 regular season.
Bellport, though—a program rich in playoff success—botched the Sharks’ plans with a 14-0 victory in front of a jam-packed ESM crowd.
Bellport, the sixth seed in the first round, is now slated to play at fourth-seeded Huntington in the division semifinals on Saturday afternoon; Huntington defeated Hauppauge, 35-14, to advance. The winner of that game will advance to the finals against the winner of the Miller Place-Sayville match.
ESM head coach Paul Mastronardi said Friday’s loss was a tough one for his team. “You certainly have to give credit to the coaches and their players,” he said of Bellport. “We had the opportunities to win the game, but we blew it. We had ball inside their 10-yard line four times, and we weren’t able to make the plays we needed to win. In our division, you can’t do that and expect to be successful.”
Bellport scored on the opening drive of the game. Conor Haverty, a junior, finished off an eight-play, 55-yard drive with a 1-yard run up the middle less than three minutes into the game. Junior Nick Fountis kicked the extra point, and the Clippers led, 7-0.
The game became a defensive battle—very different from when the two teams met earlier this season, a game that ESM won, 31-28. This game remained a 7-0 game into the fourth quarter, but with less than nine minutes remaining in the game, the Sharks were threatening to tie the score.
On fourth and goal on Bellport’s 7-yard line, ESM sophomore quarterback Matt Kane, filling in for injured senior quarterback Austin Macchi, was pressured in the pocket and threw the ball toward the end zone. Bellport junior Jabari M’Bhaso intercepted the ball at the goal line, broke a tackle at midfield, and eventually ran 100 yards for the touchdown. Fountis added the extra point, and the Clippers stunned a large home crowd at ESM by taking a 14-0 lead with 8:19 remaining in the game.
Mastronardi explained that there was concern that his team wouldn’t have the same opportunity to score later in the game, which prompted him to go for the touchdown on fourth and goal instead of a field goal. He also noted that the team’s kicker, junior Nijay Brown, had a 36-yard field goal try late in the second quarter that was knocked down by a stiff wind at ESM.
“We thought it was the right thing to do at the time,” Mastronardi said. “In hindsight, maybe we should have kicked the field goal, but it was just one of those decisions. We made a similar decision against Sayville earlier in the year, where we went for two points and made it, so we looked like geniuses then. But we felt like we needed to score at that point.”
ESM attempted to come back on its next drive, but Kane was intercepted again by Bellport junior Andrew Trent at midfield, and the Clippers went on to win their first playoff game in three years. Kane came into the game late in the second quarter due to an ankle injury to Macchi. It was the same ankle injury that forced Macchi to miss the regular season game against Bellport, in which Kane played well and led the Sharks to a victory.
“Obviously that hurt us, putting the sophomore in,” Mastronardi said. “He just didn’t have enough practice time during the week. We really prepped [Kane] for that regular season game against Bellport, because we knew he would be starting, but we didn’t expect to have to go to him this time around.
“Matt is a fine young man with a nice future,” he added. “If he can continue to progress, by the time he’s a senior, he could be the finest quarterback [ESM] has ever had. He’s still a young pup, but he’s going to be very good. Next year, he’s going to be very good for them.”
The Sharks played well, especially on defense, where they held the Clippers to just 200 yards of total offense, and 55 of those yards came on the first drive of the game.
Mastronardi predicted that Bellport should make the county final against Sayville, but in terms of his own team, he said it has nothing to be ashamed of.
“Going into the season, we felt we were a 4-4, 5-4 team at best,” he said. “But the way the players stepped up this year, I had nothing but praise for them and admiration. I started coaching in 1985—I’ve been at it a long time—and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever coached a team with the character that this team had. So I had nothing but praise for these kids.
“It’s extraordinary for them to go 7-1 and be Big Four Champions, all marks that this team can always be proud of and will be hard to replicate in the future.”
ESM has an extensive list of seniors who are expected to graduate in June. Included on the list are Macchi, Mike Bianco, Colin Schapert, Mike Lieberman, Jagger Chaisty, Corey Cogan, Cole Zeller, Reggie Gode, Matt Cunningham, Joe Zarcone, Joe Barlie, Joe Pesce and Josh De Leon. Mastronardi said Bianco is up for Defensive Player of the Year in Suffolk County and has a good shot at being named All-Long Island.
“He’s a heck of a football player, but he’s not only a great football player but he’s a great human being,” Mastronardi said. “He’s going to be missed.”
Key losses also include Chaisty, Zeller, and three lineman in Zarcone, Barlie and Pesce. “Bianco, Pesce and Zeller, those are all three kids I decided to build this program around three years ago when I took this job, and they certainly came to fruition,” Mastronardi said. “They stepped up and became exactly what I thought they were going to be.”